Olivia Garner of Northlake and Roman Jaime of Melrose Park, the 17-year-old parents of two-and-one-half-year-old Leo, say theirsonwas developmentally on target, and then one day he wasn’t.

“Leo will be three in December, and at first he was doing everything he should be doing developmentally. He was an early walker, 9 months, and he was really active, but not really talking,” said Garner, who gave birth in the winter of her freshman year in high school. “When Roman and I asked the doctor about that, she recommended that we register for early childhood intervention services through the state of Illinois.”

Now, weekly at Wonder Works Children’s Museum in Oak Park, Leah Shapiro, a local developmental therapist and early childhood specialist, is teaching the teens parenting skills, while therapeutically playing with Leo to address his developmental speech delay and short attention span.

There, in that 6,400 square foot museum space, Shapiro says that by exploring Wonder Works’ five educational stations with scores of other children, ages 8 and under who are also unleashing their imaginations in this safe space, Leo is learning how to take turns and share materials, being socialized.

“We don’t have any screens, which make this a very hands on environment for kids and families, and we very consciously do that,” says Mary Bodlak, its executive director. “Leah is one of many therapists who regularly bring their clients here, and we also have lots of nonprofits who use us. Since the beginning we have been partnering with many social service agencies because we have strategically built an environment that is geared to kids of all abilities.”

During sessions, through play, Shapiro says she is working on Leo’s current verbal and attention deficits, while simultaneously modeling positive approaches to parenting for his young mom and dad.

“I think he is extremely cute when he starts getting mad, but I still have to say no,” says Jaime, who like Garner is working and finishing up their senior year of high school while being parents. Luckily, he says, he and Garner are receiving a strong assist from both of their moms.

And, Leo tends to surprise them.

“At times, I thought he couldn’t actually play with some of the things at the learning station, but he is smarter than I thought, and knows exactly what he is doing,” says Jaime.

Recently, as new members of Wonder Works, family time is spent at the children’s museum. And, together with their toddler, the teens are making art and piecing together puzzles, tracking him into a tunnel to find and bang a drum, and helping him climb the steps of the slide, a teaching moment that builds Leo’s gross motor skills, Shapiro says.

“When I found out that I was pregnant, at the time, I thought it was a huge mistake,” says Garner, who hopes to attend college next fall. “But now that I have this beautiful little boy, I know that it was not a mistake. We had no idea what to expect when we had him, but then he was there, and when we saw him, everything clicked and now it’s all about Leo, and whatever he needs. Because for us now, being parents comes before being a teenager.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....